From Soviet Socialist Republics to Independent States: A story of Central Asia (Turkmenistan)

OpinionFrom Soviet Socialist Republics to Independent States: A story of Central Asia...

A story of Central Asia (Turkmenistan)

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

Agha Iqrar Haroon, Development Observer working in Central Asia and eastern Europe regions
Agha Iqrar Haroon, Development Observer working in Central Asia and eastern Europe regions


Almost all Central Asian states are going to celebrate their 25th Independence from August 31, 2016 to December 25, 2016.
Uzbekistan was the first Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) that announced its Independence and came out from the clutches of former Soviet Union on August 31, 1991. Other Central Asian SSRs followed Uzbekistan instantly.
Tajikistan announced independence on 9 September 1991, Turkmenistan announced its independence on 27 October 1991, Kazakhstan announced its independence on 16 December 1991 and Kyrgyzstan announced its independence on 31 August 1991 but it was recognized an Independent state on 25 December 1991.

This phenomenon of disintegration and coming out from the clutches of former Soviet Union is called as “Uzbek way” by Russian anthropologists and historians.
Kazakh SSR had biggest land volume in former Soviet Union while Tajik SSR was the smallest.  These Republics were called Constituent Republics of the Soviet Union (USSR).
Almost every SSR had certain production entity except Tajikistan which was known only for water and hydel energy production. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were known for their oil and gas productions, Kyrgyzstan was popular for copper, iron and gold mines, and Uzbekistan ruled the former SSRs for its cotton production.
Kazakhstan had an edge of being a wheat producer and hosting Baikonur Cosmodrome which is the first and largest operational space launch facility in the world. But all SSRs had other smaller products also including uranium and iron ore. The future of SSRs was determined by their products when they decided to disintegrate from former Soviet Union and they all performed well in their respective fields except Tajikistan that fell in civil war due to its proximity and social linkages with Afghanistan. A civil war and rule of radical Islamists continued for over five years and ruined this country from top to bottom. Tajikistan has yet to come out of adverse impact of civil war and remains poorest country in Central Asia.
Almost all heads of states of newly independent states had been a part or heads of Soviet system in their respective SSR therefore they decided not to disintegrate from new Russia culturally and socially because they had fears that radicalism would be injected in their countries by United States that had been financing Jihad in Afghanistan. Almost all newly born states did not go far away from Russian orbit though some of them wishes to stay little away from the gravity of New Russia.
New Russia had no interest in Tajikistan because of it proximity and cultural linkages with Afghanistan but new Russia did not wish to disintegrate from biggest country—-Kazakhstan and biggest cotton producer—Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan fell in Western bloc soon and weak Russia let it went away farther.
Almost every new state decided to preserve certain elements and values of the “old system” therefore Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan  and Uzbekistan decided to provide socioeconomic basics including free education and health care, special support to elderly people, cheaper oil and subsidies on wheat because these three countries were rich SSRs while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could not do this without the support of new Russia because their productivity was less like of Kyrgyzstan.

One should look into political, social and financial conditions of these former Soviet Republics after they have completed their first quarter of century as independent states.



From Soviet Socialist Republics to Independent States: A story of Central Asia (Turkmenistan)Turkmen society is based on tribal norms where elite, clan and contacts run the system.

Word “Turkmen” appeared in history in 10th century for people who migrated from Mongolia and were called “Oghuz tribes”.

Turkmen areas were under the influence of Khanate of Khiva therefore the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (initially, the Turkestan Socialist Federative Republic) was established on 30 April 1918 and Turkmen tribesmen joined forces with the Bolsheviks at the end of 1919 to depose the rulers–Khans. On 2 February 1920, Khiva’s last Kungrad khan, Sayid Abdullah, step downed and Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic was created out of the territory of the old Khanate of Khiva. Former Khanate was divided between Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

Since terrain of this part of Soviet Union was considered rugged and sandy desert without water therefore this area was not popular among Soviet people. Almost 80% land of SSR had no constant source of surface water flow. Main rivers were located only in the southern and eastern borders. A few smaller rivers on the northern slopes of the Kopetdag were diverted for irrigation. The most important river was (is) Amu Darya which flows across northeastern Turkmenistan.

Turkmen SSR was considered primitive and almost useless by former Soviet Union and people from main land of USSR were discouraged to travel to Turkmenistan SSR. The only interest former USSR had in Turkmen SSR was its oil resources.

The oil extraction industry started with the exploitation of the fields in Cheleken in 1909, Balkanabat in 1936, Kumdag field in 1948 and the Koturdepe field in 1959. However production level was low. Now Turkmenistan is the fifth-largest natural gas producer in the world.

Konstantin Georgiyevich Paustovsky who was a Soviet writer (who nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1965) talks about Turkmenistan in his classic work “The Bay of Kara-Bogaz”. He writes:

Superstitious, illiterate, overall backward and contributing nothing culturally comparing to other SSRs”.

Saparmurat Niyazov was in charge of Turkmen SSR in early mid 80s when former USSR was crumbling. He became First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR in 1985 when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev removed Muhammetnazar Gapurov due to alleged corruption in a cotton-related scandal. On January 13, 1990, Niyazov became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR. The post was equivalent to that of President.

Niyazov supported the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 and then announced Independence from USSR following Tajik and Uzbek SSRs.

The Turkmen Supreme Soviet declared independence from USSR and appointed Niyazov as President on October 27, 1991.

Independent Turkmenistan looked after its population and kept providing free education, free health services and free transportation.

Niyazov died of heart attack in 2006 and his Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took over charge as “interim successor” and then was elected as new President through elections.

Political observers believe that 70 year Soviet rule failed to change social fabrics of Turkmenistan and it remains a tribal community.

Turkmen government provides almost everything free of cost to its population and public services such as water, house, apartment, energy and even basic food supplies are 100 per cent subsidized. However, Turkmen youth is not performing well in higher education sector although education is free.

Economy is performing excellent through export of cotton and energy products but decrease in oil and gas prices world over dented its economy during the last two years. In January 2016, Russia suspended all gas purchases from Turkmenistan due to its (Russian) economic meltdown. Now China is the only buyer of Turkmen gas and has been cutting down prices of gas on its (Chinese) will. China is buying around 30 billion cubic metre per annum, despite a supply contract amounting to 65 billion.

In these circumstances, Turkmenistan government backed by western world is trying to export natural gas to Pakistan through Afghanistan.

Opening of Iranian energy resources to the world after lifting of sanction is also not pleasant news for Turkmenistan as it has a competitor in its neighbourhood regarding oil and gas export.

Melting oil and gas market is hampering Turkmen economy because like most other post-Soviet states, it has failed to build up financial back-ups and export oriented economy makes the country almost fully dependent on cash invested from abroad—-export bills.

Leadership of Turkmenistan is facing political worries also as it has promised to provide almost 100% subsidies on electricity, natural gas, water and salt up to 2030 to its population while its financial resources are draining due to low exports. According to the decree of the Peoples’ Council of 14 August 2003, electricity, natural gas, water and salt will be subsidized for citizens up to 2030.

After oil and gas market meltdown, Turkmenistan has taken a cautious approach to economic reform, hoping to use gas and cotton sales to sustain its economy and promote tourism industry for rapid cash flow.

Turkmenistan exports raw cotton to Russia, Iran, South Korea, Britain, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Ukraine, Singapore and the Baltic nations.

The tourism industry has been growing rapidly due to the creation of the Avaza tourist zone on the Caspian Sea. Turkmen tourism operators are doing business collectively with Uzbek companies to get tours for historical sites like Daşoguz, Konye-Urgench, Nisa and Merv.

One can say Independence for Turkmen is blessing as government is looking after its population and country is growing its economic base. “Yesteryears primitive “Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic” is today’s successful “Republic of Turkmenistan”.


A Series of articles covers 25 years of independence of all Central Asian republics. Preamble of all articles is same to give a background of Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) so readers can understand circumstances new states went through after disintegration of former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Independence of Central Asian states caused a snow ball effect and entire USSR was disintegrated on December 26, 1991– just one day after Independence of Kyrgyzstan was recognised.  
The Soviet Union was officially dissolved on December 26, 1991, as a result of the declaration no. 142-Н of the Soviet of the Republics of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. The declaration acknowledged the independence of the former Soviet republics and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although five of the signatories ratified it much later or not at all.

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